As paint is poured and mixed into trays and the large panel is laid out, Sandra Murphy-Pak gets ready to put color to canvas with her feet. She presses wet and powdered paint on the wood.
Sandra was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, in 2014. The disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, breaks down nerve cells, which reduces functionality in the muscles. It affects Sandra’s chest, which causes difficulty breathing, so she uses a mask to ease the trouble.
The disease robbed Sandra of her ability to use her hands and arms, but her creative spirit remains unscathed.
“I think once I got through the whole medical confusion, I realized well my feet are really strong,” Murphy-Pak said. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be creating.”
Tina Mullen, the director of the UF Health Arts in Medicine program, said when someone is confronted with a life changing diagnosis, there can be feelings of a loss of control, but Sandra is regaining it though her artwork.
“Through her diagnosis and through dealing with the disease of ALS, returning to painting and expressing herself through her innate creativity I think is helping her to stay grounded in who she is as a person, as Sandra, not who she is as a person with ALS,” Mullen said.
Sarah Hinds is an art teacher and glass blower. She taught art to Sandra’s daughters when they were young, and the two became friends and have kept in contact ever since. Every week Sarah sets up an art station in Sandra’s home, keeping in mind her feet have to reach the canvas.
Once Sarah pours and mixes the paint, Sandra dips her feet in different trays of colors — whites, reds and yellows — and from the soles of her feet come the images of her soul. Her innovative way to create came about naturally.
“When she stopped being able to use her hands, it was clear that she was going to need to still be expressing herself somehow,” Hinds said.
Painting is Sandra’s passion, but at this point with her fight against ALS, the process is exhausting.
“It feels great, I love the feeling of the paint,” Murphy-Pak said. “I love mixing color. It’s just super strenuous, which is a drag.”
But then, when she looks at her work, Sandra gets her second wind. It inspires her to carry on no matter how tired she may feel, and Sarah can’t help but laugh. When Sandra caresses the wood with her feet, she lights up.
“She’s had a really rough few weeks and when I come over and paint she’s super energized, so it gives her a lot of energy,” Hinds said.
This is much more than a hobby. Sandra paints with purpose. Each piece she does corresponds to her circle of care and the circle of life.
As Hinds cleans Murphy-Pak’s feet, she goes from being the art teacher to the art critic.
“I think it’s excellent,” Hinds said. “I think all of this is so rich.”